Washington Post headline: “For most people, electric shocks beat time alone.” (July 4, 2014) Happy Independence Day, America.
Conducted by University of Virginia psychologists, the study intended to see what happens when we just sit and let our minds wander. They had a theory that mind wandering might lead to increased creativity or something. They didn’t anticipate that people would have trouble with the task. But people did. It was difficult, they said. Devoted members of the heads-down tribe, they cheated and thumbed their cell phones.
I wonder if this is another of those introvert/extrovert splits? (See my previous blog on the topic, “The Great Divide,” May 27, 2014) The researchers should have checked participants for their Myers-Briggs results. Introvert that I am, sitting around letting my mind wander is what I do best.
Look, I’m doing it right now. Staring at my computer screen, listening to birds outside my window. That poor fellow’s been trying so hard to woo her, and she just flies away. I start making up a love triangle story about sparrows that involves extensive personification. I could do this kind of thing for hours. Look, Ma, no cell phone!
But study participants said it was too hard. So the staff tried to make it easier, gave people time to prepare what they might think about, gave them assignments: plan a vacation, for example. No go. They couldn’t stick it out. It was unpleasant, made them uncomfortable.
We must have been talking about a major amount of time in isolation with your own thoughts, right? A week, maybe? A day? Three or four hours?
None of the above. Six to fifteen minutes.
People couldn’t stand being alone with themselves for one quarter of an hour. So the researchers wondered, being the perverse people researchers are: was it so difficult that they’d prefer negative stimulation? They gave participants a device that would give them a mild electric shock if they pressed a button. Not expecting many would shock themselves voluntarily, of course.
But people did. Left alone in a room to keep their own counsel for fifteen minutes, people shocked themselves an average of seven times. Once every two minutes.
Here’s my theory.
Scenario 1: Female. You’re alone in a room with your thoughts, and you start out, OK, how about that dream vacation. We could go to Bali. That’s an exotic tropical paradise. We’d be on the beach—I’ve got to lose twenty pounds, how am I going to—Zap! I’ll shock myself instead.
More men shocked themselves than women. Why does that sound right to me?
Scenario 2: Male. Geez, I’m alone in this room. No TV? No TV. There’s nothing to do here. Supposed to plan a vacation, but, hell, the wife does that. There’s a game on, isn’t there? No TV. I’m falling asleep. Better shock myself. Zap! Wow, I’m pretty tough. That didn’t bother me at all. Let’s try again. Zap!
The women surprised me, though. Women may not be more introverted or self-reliant than men, but they do have busier minds. I figured a woman could keep herself going for fifteen minutes just with the closet re-organizing she needs to do and correcting her husband. I can hear her: “Sweetie, I do wish you wouldn’t leave gobs of toothpaste in the sink.” Hard to believe, but apparently those things weren’t enough.
Scenario 3: Female O.K. Bali’s out, in fact all beaches are out until I lose this weight, so what about Paris? We’ll get one of those direct overnights, stay where we can see the Eiffel Tower—and—your mother wants to come? Look, I’ve never told you this before, but your mother— Zap!
See, the mind is dangerous. Most of us really don’t want to let the thing off-leash. A friend told me she and her husband were going on a cruise, showed me the agenda, a day-by-day program packed with activities and tours. It made me tired looking at it. I observed that there wasn’t much down time.
“Oh, no,” she answered breezily. “I need to be busy. If I’m not, I start thinking.”
I kinda want one. One of those mild shock devices. You know, like for now, sitting at the computer alone in my room, supposed to be writing a blog, but thinking, I really should get back to yoga class and stop eating ice cream. Did I lock the front door? Zap! I shock myself and start hitting those computer keys. In theory.